Editor’s Notebook: The great bridge hullabaloo of ’23
The underside of one of the many red-listed bridges in New Hampshire. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation has been mucking about under our bridge again.
It’s one of 118 state bridges on the red list, and for a couple of years now folks in orange vests have been coming around periodically to “Hmmm” at the chipped concrete and rusted girders. They tie plastic ribbons around a few branches near our hammock and then disappear for months, leaving clueless homeowners to spend a season wondering about the markers’ significance. “Are they rerouting the bridge over the fire pit? Is this how the state casually lets you know it’s seizing your land? Is it a prank?”
I thought it was a good prank, if that’s what it was, akin to telling someone “I know what you did” and then walking away without explanation. The human imagination is a wonderful, terrifying thing.
But several weeks ago, we learned by way of a very formal looking letter that we were not victims of a long-running DOT gag. A public hearing was scheduled, and the department had sent along a project map and informational pamphlets we were to review ahead of the meeting. I looked at the map for a long time, turning it sideways, backwards, and upside down, all the while squinting and noggin-tapping like Winnie the Pooh. It didn’t help, and so I hid the literature under the kitchen notepad as is customary in such situations. Out of sight, out of mind.
Winter-into-spring, I didn’t think much about the bridge or the ominous ribbons. But last week, on the eve of the public hearing, I entered catastrophic thinking mode and imagined the road-facing corner of our kitchen being taken through eminent domain. Snicker if you will, but years ago when we first heard the rumblings of a bridge project, a state official explained to me that the right-of-way line actually lopped off part of the house. It’s an old house, and it seems that a couple centuries ago roads were so close to homes that you barely had to go outside to cross to the other side.
I pictured passing motorists stopping at our window to place their dinner orders, and that pushed me over the edge. On the way to the town hall the next day, I quietly practiced being outraged.
“Hold on a damn second. Do you mean to tell me …”
“With all due respect, Mr. Johnson, I demand …”
“I’m out of line? I’M OUT OF LINE?”
As I lawyer-strutted into the meeting room, which turned out to be an impressive replica of the church basement of my youth, I wondered whether the bureaucrats had any idea what they were in for. Maybe I couldn’t make heads or tails of their project map, but what I lacked in understanding I more than made up for in mild agitation.
What a dud the whole thing turned out to be. The presentation was clear and thorough, and by the end I understood the map well enough to give a TED talk on it. Our property would indeed be affected – by something called a vegetative swale – but it didn’t seem the kind of thing you stood on your chair to yell about. Instead, I quietly asked for a little more information about the swale’s appearance and how the crews might handle problematic patches of poison ivy and Japanese knotweed.
As my neighbors filed out of the meeting, one of the project engineers approached my wife and I and volunteered an answer to a critical question I hadn’t asked: Yes, we could put the hammock back in its spot once the work was done.
And that was that.
Even if everything goes exactly as planned by the DOT, the actual work won’t begin until spring 2025. Plans have to be finalized and approved, the project sent out to bid, and utility lines moved before the heavy equipment arrives. In a world of revolving problems, who knows what will be at the top of the list two years from now. Another pandemic or insurrection? A turn for the worse on climate change? A new war or the escalation of an old one?
There’s no saying. All I know is that for one disruptive construction season in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have the opportunity to redirect all of my worldly concerns, fears, and frustrations into the myriad inconveniences of a bridge replacement.
I hope I have enough sense to appreciate the distraction while it lasts.
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